Holy Saturday: The Great Sabbath

Erika Kobewka, Apr 8, 2023, 12:25 AM
Erika Kobewka Worship Leader
"Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea... This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment."
Luke 23:50, 52-56 (ESV)
Holy Saturday begins where Good Friday ends. On Good Friday, we remember the sufferings, afflictions, and death of our Lord. We remember that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was stricken with grief and sorrow and by his wounds we are healed.1 If you have ever participated in The Stations of the Cross, you might remember that the final station is most often marked by Jesus' burial and it is in this place, a rock sealing the entry of a tomb in brutal finality, that "The Great Silence" or "The Great Sabbath" begins. Holy Saturday lays in the centrefold of the Easter Triduum, the Great Three Days, and occupies the sacred space of reeling loss and disorienting grief.2 Jesus, the Saviour of the world and our longed-for Messiah is dead, and all of our hopes are dashed. On Holy Saturday the horrific realities of the crucifixion sink in and there are no words left, only stunned silence.

There are many scenes from the Easter story that have occupied the imaginations of artists for centuries, but one that has captivated me is the Pietà: Mary, the mother of Christ, holding her deceased son after he is taken down from the cross. One of the most famous depictions of this scene is the marble sculpture by Michelangelo, and as his only signed work, I can't help but wonder what was occupying his mind as he chiselled marble to portray a shattered body, the King of Kings, lifeless and crumpled in the arms of his mother. The gospel of John records that in Jesus' final moments he cried aloud to his mother, "Behold your son!"3 and while there is no Biblical account of Mary cradling his broken and deceased body, we know that she witnessed his violent crucifixion and was present at the tomb of his burial.4 Would not every mother cradle her child in death, even if only in her heart? From the announcement of the immaculate conception, Mary was promised that her son would save the world. She was promised that Jesus would establish and rule over a new Kingdom that would have no end. Grief is profoundly disorienting, and in the moments following Jesus' death I wonder what Mary experienced. Trauma? Fear? Shock? Wave upon wave of visceral anguish? Where is the promised hope now?

As Christians, we know that the story does not end here, but for those grappling and reeling from the violent death of their promised Saviour, was there even a strand of hope to hold onto? Standing in the grave quiet of a stone-cold tomb there was no flicker of Easter morning, there was not even a whisper of, "It's Friday but Sunday's a-comin'..." To utter such sentiments in the faces of those left side-swept and shattered would feel like a desecration of grief, regardless of its truth. Holy Saturday acknowledges in profound ways, so many of the emotions intrinsic to those who experience loss: abandonment, darkness, despair, and, yes, even the silence of God. Do we do our redemption story a disservice or lessen its formative power by skipping straight from mid-day on Good Friday to the triumph of Easter morning? Holy Saturday humanizes the holy sacredness in life's greatest loss, death, and even then, we know it is not the end. The followers and family of Jesus kept Sabbath that day, stunned, traumatized, and without an inkling of what would come next. The ancient church has called Holy Saturday, "The Great Sabbath" recognizing this "ceasing" of life. Haven't we all found ourselves staggering and at a loss for words in the face of unthinkable devastation? Make no mistake, "we are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song,"5 and yet in the bedrock of our faith, straddling the space between death and glorious resurrection is a day of agonising bewilderment.

For the ancient church, the three days culminated in an all-night Easter service known as the Great Paschal Vigil. In some streams of the church, this night is still observed each year and often begins late on Holy Saturday and ends at sunrise on Easter Sunday. Most services are marked by utter darkness and quiet and a posture of waiting and lament. In the ancient world, the night and day were regulated by the setting and rising of the sun. Similarly, the vigil of Holy Saturday begins in the dark because the light of Christ has been extinguished by death. A grieving and reeling world keeps watch all night long until at last, at long last, a piece of glowing flint is thrown into a stack of wood and the fire catches and grows. The priest proclaims,
"The light of Christ." To which the people respond,

"Thanks be to God!"
Even the end, is not the end. Amen.

Contemplative Exercise
As you step into Holy Saturday, take some time to sit in the sacred silence of this day. Are you experiencing hopelessness, despair, loss, bewilderment, or confusion? Take a few moments to notice and name these things before God. How do you sense or imagine God responding to your pain or grief?
If you are able, light a candle and pause in the warmth of its flame: "The light of Christ, thanks be to God."6

1 Isaiah 53:5
2 Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year, 134.
3 John 19:26
4 Mark 15:47
5 Attributed to Pope John Paul II
6 Taken from The Great Vigil of Easter, The Book of Common Prayer


Erika Britt Kobewka is a writer of liturgy and spoken word, worship leader, and violinist in St. Albert, Alberta. She and her family attend and serve at Avenue Vineyard in Edmonton and currently, she is working on completing her training in spiritual direction. You can follow some of her written work at www.trillafleur.com.